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The James J. Hill House - St. Paul, MN

Dear Diary,
Every so often, I encounter a place where the surrounding air breathes its stories.

The James J. Hill House in St. Paul is one such place, and I think I have San Diego's Whaley House to blame for my newfound leanings toward historic home explorations.

[A portrait of James J. Hill hangs in one of the formal parlors. Our awesome tour guide commented on his authoritative, often cantankerous attitude and hot temper, but quickly stopped herself as, "we were in his home. We must be respectful." Historians don't always have nice things to say about him.]

Recently, the kids and I toured the home of the man who built the iconic Stone Arch Bridge and a railroad empire that connected the middle of the country to the Northwest. His company would later be dissolved by the Antitrust Act.

[Pulling up to the grand estate, the exterior feels more like an asylum than a home that raised a family.]

 [The black stains on the exterior are from the coal used to once heat the house.]

Construction of the James J. Hill house was completed in 1891, and the house was once considered "the showcase of St. Paul". In fact, this Gilded Age mansion had state-of-the-art mechanical systems for the era, alongside its 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces and 16 chandeliers.

Stepping inside is like stepping back in time, to an era of expert craftsmanship rarely encountered today. The woodwork was breathtakingly beautiful, with no detail spared in the home's 44,552-square feet of living space.

[I aspire for our wall returns to be this beautiful.] 

[Library goals.] 

[One of their son's bedrooms. Hill and his wife raised 10 children.] 

[The beauty and grandeur of this dining room once hosted President McKinley.] 

[The ceilings are made of gold, the walls are covered in leather and the wood species throughout is now either extinct or considered endangered.]

[The wood was hand carved by an artist in Bavaria, now Germany.] 

[Another view of the gorgeous dining room.]

Hill curated his own collection of sculpture and art in a 2-story skylit gallery, which thankfully, later generations are still able to appreciate. Due to restoration work, we were unable to view the gallery, but we did see the inner workings of the skylights.

There is a massive pipe organ in another room, also closed down for restorations. I've read that it is an impressive sight to behold, so I intend to return and check it out. Workers were reassembling the pipe as we toured the home, so it was expected to reopen shortly.

[This grand staircase landing is only a mere 1,000-square-feet smaller than our entire house.] 

[I was absolutely in love with the stained glass.] 

[With the exception of a couple of areas, all of the woodwork in the home is hand carved.]

 [View of St. Paul]

 [The Basilica in St. Paul]

[One of the Hill's sons lived in the grand home next door.]

It was once the largest private residence in Minnesota, and was in the Hill family for 30 years.

According to staff, in spite of its history, the mansion "is not haunted." And honestly? I wanted it to be haunted! It didn't detract from my overall impression of the place, but I also couldn't handpick a more appropriate setting for a haunting. The reason they say it isn't? Nothing bad happened here.

After our visit, however, I looked into the chatter that surrounds the home. Even with the reputation that it was "a happy, family home," I found a quote from a psychic who mentioned seeing the spirits of servants, and they're reportedly seen in the kitchen and laundry room.

 [The original stove and oven were heated with coal before it was upgraded to gas.]

[The woman pictured in black was the estate's Second Chef, and the woman in white was the First Chef. Their shared experience made them lifelong friends.]

To elaborate on what I meant by "happy home," it was because James Hill was rarely present. The servants referred to his wife as Mother Hill, and since she came from a poor family, felt comfortable in the kitchen with her staff making her wine and jam.

The Tour Guide stated the servants working the laundry were often cranky and unhappy, for obvious reasons. The work was hot, the loads were heavy and the task was very labor intensive and exhausting.

 [Huge cedar drying racks.]

... unhappy, unseen and unheard servants fueling a haunting makes sense because what we know of Victorian class and culture - servants were creeping in the shadows of their employers. If there is going to be someone who is unhappy or disgruntled, it's going to be one of the servants. And if we're going to examine the spooky potential of an old Victorian mansion, the best place to look are the areas frequented by its staff.

The basement had a VERY different feel than the rest of the house.

Update - I found two blog posts (here and here) on that speculate to the former servants' quarters of the home having an eerie feel to them ... almost like they're haunted? The posts even refer to the upstairs hallway as, The Haunted Hallway. I do think there may be truth to Victorian servants fueling a haunting in an otherwise happy, family home.

As did the part of the house where the female servants lived.

[The Butler's call center in the basement - when a button was pushed from anywhere on the upper levels of the house, staff were able to emerge from the shadows and fulfill the request.]

[The home's boiler room - let it be known that the home cost $1 million to construct in 1891, and $500,000 A YEAR to heat.]

[The servants' terrace - it should be noted that the windows on the servants' areas of the home had bars on them.]

Hill passed away in the house in 1916 (in which, his funeral was also held), and his wife in 1921. Their children eventually moved out. In 1925, four of the Hill daughters purchased the home from the estate, and donated it to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The Church used the home as its office space, and thankfully, did not make any significant renovations. Most of the original furniture however, had been sold. It was quite the effort on behalf of the Historical Society to locate and purchase as many original pieces as possible, while undertaking the $5 million restoration.

The United States Department of the Interior designated the Hill House as a National Historic Landmark in 1961.

In 1978, the Minnesota Historical Society acquired the home (for $250,000) when the Archdiocese relocated their offices elsewhere. It has since been restored, and we've finally joined the ranks of Minnesotans who've toured these halls.

If you go:
240 Summit Ave, St. Paul
James J. Hill House | MNHS
Hours vary
Admission fee charged, but it's reasonable

[This image kind of creeps me out - it's of the inside of a small structure at the gate, with chipping paint and wallpaper and rusting objects. The mansion is seen in the reflection, as is my silhouette trying to take a picture through the glass. Clearly restorations did not include this area.]

*Tuesdays host a fascinating "Nooks & Crannies Tour" that grant access to area of the home not seen on the regular tour. I will be making a return, in addition to seeing the giant pipe organ!

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